What good could possibly come of revealing to the world the color of your undergarments? Apparently, quite a lot.
Just 24 hours after a viral campaign tied to breast cancer awareness exploded on Facebook two weeks ago, more than 2,000 new fans — 10 times the usual number in that time period — joined the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Facebook page. It started when women around the world forwarded this e-mail to their friends:
“Some fun is going on . . . just write the color of your bra in your status. Just the color, nothing else. And send this on to ONLY girls, no men . . . It will be fun to see how long it takes before the men will wonder why all the girls have a color in their status . . . Pass it on & do your breast self-exams!”
The viral campaign raised disease awareness by raising the curiosity of a few good men, sparking news coverage by ABCNews.com, the Associated Press, Good Morning America, and other major outlets. And it’s continued to grow.
The campaign’s origin is still a mystery, according to Andrea Rader, spokesperson for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which didn’t dream up the bra-color posting but welcomed it quietly, thrilled to see droves of new fans join the Facebook page, many signing in with their bra color only. “On Friday morning [January 8], everyone’s having coffee, firing up their machines, and suddenly they notice something going on with a huge uptick on the site,” she recalls. “Then the press started calling.”
The foundation was well-positioned to welcome the fans, having devoted the past two years to developing social media and hiring two staffers dedicated to that task. The foundation’s tech crew scrambled to trace the source, but it’s unclear who triggered the e-mail chain letter heard ’round the world. There was some speculation that it was tied to a Facebook group called “Breast Cancer Awareness. I Updated My Status with My Bra Colour,” started in Britain by a handful of people, but the group’s administrator told The Washington Post that they had nothing to do with it. Puzzling as it may be, it’s clearly shown how powerfully positive viral PR can be.
According to Jake McKee, chief idea officer at Ant’s Eye View, a customer engagement strategy development firm, whether it was created by Komen or not, the viral campaign worked because Komen has succeeded in creating a platform for discussion about breast cancer that people want to be a part of and want to contribute to.
“The Komen platform is strong enough that things can happen without their direct involvement,” says McKee. “They didn’t try to overtly brand and control this. Companies need to figure out what their platform is — the connection between the customer and company that’s bigger than the both of you.”
Viral PR in simple terms is using the power of the Internet to get people interested enough in your story to want to attach their own name to it and pass it on. In the old days, it was called word of mouth.
Of course, directing a successful viral PR campaign isn’t as easy as it looks. Done right, it can raise your profile amid a perfect storm of chatter on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and e-mail. Done wrong, it can damage your reputation with devastating speed.
Wal-Mart took a hit a couple of years ago when BusinessWeek reported that a folksy blog allegedly written by a couple happily camping in store parking lots around the country was actually a campaign funded by the retailer. The blogosphere that had been ripe for heartwarming posts about the couple’s adventures instead churned out a stream of negative stories about the stunt.
“You need to be honest and upfront about what your campaign is asking and who is behind it,” says Peter Shankman, the social media guru who created Help a Reporter Out, a Web community that connects journalists with sources.
Shankman also says a call to action is an important element of most viral PR campaigns, and the simpler and more immediately doable, the better (like asking someone to post to their Facebook page).
Another important step is to do your homework and find out what motivates the demographic you’re trying to reach, says Valerie Jennings, chief executive officer of Jennings Social Media Marketing. In launching an environmental campaign, for example, she says the call to action would be drastically different if you were trying to reach a radically green audience rather than people who could get passionate about replacing energy-draining light bulbs but don’t want to revolutionize their lifestyle.
The reason the bra-color viral campaign was so successful is that women grasped the message right away. “You have to understand what drives emotion among that group,” says Jennings. “You need them to feel that they want to own this message, this story, and they want to pass it along on their Facebook, Twitter about it, make a video about it, put it on their blog, and e-mail about it.”
Another sign that the bra-color campaign was successful: It was inexpensive.
“It shouldn’t be elaborate and costly,” says Shankman. He says part of the engine that drives viral PR is its apparent bare-bones simplicity and just-between-friends feel.
What’s the next campaign we may see go viral? Online comments may be as reliable predictors of the future as tea leaves, but it wouldn’t be surprising if men start updating their Facebook status with “boxers,” “briefs,” or “commando” to raise awareness about prostate cancer. Not TMI, just smart PR that uses the awesome power of social media.
In her 20-plus years as a journalist and PR professional, Barbara Goldberg has reported for the Associated Press, Time, United Press International, and other major media and has helped nonprofit and private industry clients tell their stories in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ABCNews.com, and many other news outlets.